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Harwood Union students present stories from Rwanda

04/23/2009

Harwood Union students will present "Stories of Hope: A Journey to Rwanda," offering personal stories of students' experiences in the African nation.

On May 1, students with the Baye Fall Drummers featuring Gordon Stone will be at the Green Mountain Coffee visitor center in Waterbury at 6:30 p.m. for the event.

Harwood Union students have recently returned from the fifth visit to Rwanda.

"Harwood Union's journey to Rwanda is about the personal stories of the people living in this picturesque land. The stories are what captivate us and inspire us to return each year as a group, sometimes individually, and serve the country's community," explained teacher Steve Rand.

"If you were to watch Harwood students in action while in Rwanda, you'd find students leading classroom activities that bridge cultural divides at partner schools; they teach English or art; they engage in ethnographic research; and they work on a sustainable garden, started last year," he continued.

"At other instances you may find students documenting interviews of Rwanda students with video that are used as a needs assessment for future projects or documenting stories and visiting sites about the 1994 genocide. Students also visit coffee plantations and interview coffee-growing families, who produce coffee purchased by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters," he explained.


Here are two student stories:

"Blackberry Picking"

By Celia Cadwell

Any Vermonter knows two things about blackberries. They ripen in August, and when you go to pick them you must be prepared to bear the wounds that come from the hairy thorns of the battle of the blackberry brambles.

Every Vermonter I know has their own spot to pick blackberries. I have four spots. Three of the spots are visible from the kitchen window; that way my mom could keep an eye on us. This was the rule -- whenever we picked, my brother and I always had to be visible from the kitchen window. But there is a fourth spot that even to this day neither my mom nor my brother knows about.

It is in this place where sharp thickets form a fortress wall that in its nature surrounds the brambles, which, with their hair-like thorns, protect the soft succulent blackberries. It is here where the berries are juiciest, ripest and wild where I find my hands fill the quickest. The berries themselves grow from arching canes, miniature Indian corn. Each seed a berry of its own.

One by one I pop them into my mouth, their juice explodes, some escaping my throat but not my shirt. Sitting in this spot on the canopy floor, however, seeds of thought grow toward uncomfortable places I no longer want to hold so close. These seeds take me to a green, hilly countryside far from this spot of innocence.

In Rwanda's lush and hilly landscape the soil is stained red with the blood of genocide. Here in the village of Murambi, while the rest of my group, ten classmates and teachers from Vermont, move down the road toward the village classrooms to look inside their open doors, I hesitate, shuffle my feet, creating a red cloud of dust.

An old man approaches me with a wrinkled weathered face. The first thing I notice is his eyes. They smile at me, open, yet dark as if a storm came over and never lifted. Above his left eye, nickel-sized, a scar shaped like a sunken crater. It is the hole from a bullet wound covered by smooth, scarred skin, and I notice that he caresses his fingers back and forth over the scar.
The old man reads my hesitation. Does he see my nervousness, my fingers stroking, twisting my bottom lip? He takes my hand in his. This man who survived tumult and tragedy that I will never understand, who witnessed hate and violence I will never experience, walks with me through a graveyard of despair.

Stopping at one open classroom door after another after another I look in to find piles of bodies of his family, his friends, piles of the dead. As we turn from the last open door, I feel him let go of my hand and look up to watch him walk back toward the road from which he first came. As I stand here holding the memory of his hand pulsing hope and light through mine, I respond in promise that I will not let his story go untold.

Unlike my innocent blackberry-picking spot, which I am not ready to reveal, I now share my story of the Rwandan man because there are some things the world needs to know about. An old man takes a young girl's hand and walks her through the darkness into the light, leaving her forever changed by his faith that putting his hope in her hands she will take this story home.

There are some things we need to hold close to us. Don't ask me to tell you about my thickets and my bramble bushes, because there are some things that need to be kept, and surely innocence is one of these things. While I will not share my secret spot with my mother or even my brother with whom I share almost everything, this spot of brambly bushes hidden under the canopy of thickets in the mountains of Vermont filled with succulent berries and innocence; while I will not share this spot, I will share my Rwandan spot of memory. I will tell this man's story and make sure to include his nickel-sized scar that he caresses. I will tell this story to anyone who will listen wherever I go.

"Lucy"

By Anna Church

A photograph was taken at the hot springs at Lake Kivu in Rwanda. When we were around kids the camera always became the main attraction. As soon as we pulled it out and snapped a shot of a child, they would grapple at the camera in order to hold it and see their face transposed on the screen. Seeing themselves was a novel opportunity, which would often make them laugh or simply stare. 

It was one of those moments at the hot springs when I saw this little girl for the first time. She was being pushed aside by a throng of excited kids when I asked for her name. In a tiny voice fitting for her small stature, she told me it was Lucy and flashed a sweet smile in my direction. The grin was so endearing that I whipped out my camera and asked if she wanted her photo taken. Hoping to capture her in that moment, I snapped a picture as quickly as I could. Without glancing at it, I put the camera in my pocket and interacted with the kids until we left, but I made sure to wave at the little girl in the dirty black dress before getting in the van.

That night I flipped through my pictures on the camera to see if I had taken any good ones.  Needless to say, Lucy jumped out at me. I was confused because the image I had captured was quite different than the one I had seen while I was there.  Her expression is one of shy intensity, perhaps worry, and despite her innocence she appears old and full of life experience. Her large, brown eyes tell more of a story than her bloated belly or her ratty clothes could. 

Since I've returned I've wasted time staring at the picture trying to discover the stories that a photo can't tell. Through my continual looking, I have discovered something. It seems to me the picture is a bit of a microcosm of the discrepancy between appearance and reality, something that was not unfamiliar in Rwanda. After all, this is a country which proudly displays its supposed post-genocide "forgiveness" mentality while it's clear people still suffer wounds too deep to heal in fifteen years. 

While the government works hard to convince its own people and foreigners alike that all Tutsis forgive Hutus, it's hard not to hear accounts of the genocide where this isn't the case. Although an unbelievable willingness to move on and to forgive exists within the people of Rwanda, the "we will not forget" campaign paints a truer image of the country. Forgiveness has to coexist with remembrance or else it is insincere. 

But these issues all come from post-genocidal politics; something that would seem very distant from the little girl I met at the hot springs. But it's not far away; the genocide was an event so catastrophic that it has appeared in the big brown eyes of Lucy, born more than a decade after it happened. The story, which began in April of 1994, has not yet ended. Through the wisdom of a child, Lucy showed that to me. Rwanda has not forgotten, nor will I forget the eyes of the little girl in the dirty black dress.

 

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